INTERVIEW: JEANIE FINLAY AND GAVIN BAIN ON ‘THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX’
Jeanie Finlay’s film chronicling the journey of Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd, a couple of Scottish rappers, as they set out to trick the record industry posing as Californian duo Silibil ‘n’ Brains is one of the best documentaries of the year. As the film gains a wider release, the director and one of its subjects discuss the story behind The Great Hip Hop Hoax.
“It’s weird making films because I’m never quite sure where the next story’s going to come from and there’s that tiny moment where you go oh right yeah, this could be a film,” said filmmaker Finlay. “I was really hung over and I was reading the papers after the weekend, catching up and I just remember going oh my god, that’s the story. For me, it just had so many elements that seemed interesting. My dad is from Edinburgh and I talked to him about the idea of denying his Scottishness and it seemed an anathema. What’s the desire that makes people want to do that? I’m really interested in stories that allow me to peak into the belly of pop culture. “
That Guardian article was written by Decca Aitkenhead, who had been alerted to it by her brother Tom, who just happened to be producing an album by Hopeless Heroic whose frontman was Gavin Bain, aka Brains McLoud. This films digs deep into the belly of the music industry and the lengths that people will go to on order to make it. However the actions of Bain and Boyd may seem extreme to many, especially as they planned their fraud after just one record label rejection. However Bain’s mentality played a large part in the plan.
“I am a mental case, I am straight up crazy. I find my crazy is completely normal in my world. I don’t live in the same reality as everyone else. Before we came to London, I used to say ‘we’re going to be touring with Eminem.’ Not for a minute thinking I was lying, just thinking that’s the future and I’m on a path there. I’d done so much of that in my life and I’d say that I was going to do something then it would happen just by saying it. I knew that was a good method where I could create a false reality because the one I was in was always shit. I’ll create a false reality and then I’ll just make that reality happen because I won’t have anything to fall back on. If I tell you I’ve got a book coming out and I haven’t done a book, which I did with the Guardian, I have to then do the book or else I’d have been a liar. I always see it that if I fail, then I’m a liar and to this day I’ve never failed.”
With such an unusual and almost unbelievable tale, there were plenty of filmmakers interested in gaining access to Bain and Boyd but it was Finlay’s honesty that made her the best person to tell the story of these prolific liars.
“I think Jeanie was the first person that I was able to sit with who wasn’t bullshit. You know who was like, I’ve done these films, I identify with the story, I’ve got family from Scotland, have a look at these things. I went and saw one of her other films and I liked the way it was really honest. It wasn’t that crazy a story but she made a great film out of it. I was thinking if you can make a great film out of goths on a cruise, you could hopefully do something incredible with this.”
This is the approach which Finlay took, getting the most out of her subjects by remaining neutral and searching for the truth in small moments saying that “I think I’m just interested in letting people be themselves. I’m not coming with a huge agenda. My company’s called Glimmer because I’m looking for that glimmer of a moment.”
Finding the truth in a moment can be difficult if you have subjects that have made their living of telling lies and spending years pretending to be something they are not.
“I met Gavin four days after his story was in a newspaper and started filming him immediately. I was like, is this just a massive hoax? Am I being hoaxed? Am I being dragged into the nonsense? So I contacted the journalist who’d first broken the story and she told me it is real and I believed her. Then once I started seeing the evidence like backstage passes from Sony and CDs, I knew it was real. Also when I was interviewing them, a regular interview question was ‘how much have you been lying to me?’ And they did lie to me, both of them, but hopefully by the story I’ve shown, the audience fathoms the truth in between. Billy calls it the lies about the lies about the lies.”
Bain himself admits that he felt it necessary to tell lies within the documentary but only for noble purposes of course.
“There’s probably like necessary things that you’re just worried about – you know like the whole tattle tale thing. I was very conscious in the book on not blowing the lid on events. There was a lot of questions about people we had slept with. Of course there is but you have to watch what you say. You want people to be happy in their lives and not ruin anyone’s lives. As for what actually happened, that was going from diary almost.”
Finlay doesn’t quite agree or perhaps with Bain’s mind is forever trapped within the lies.
“Obviously Gavin had a book out and the book is quite fictionalised in lots of ways. For example in Gavin’s book, he was at the Brits and it was his idea and he did everything but the truth is he wasn’t there, he didn’t go. He did do an interview with me where he described it in detail but at the end of it I was like, you weren’t there were you? We put it in the film, and it just didn’t play well. It just didn’t seem very nice to do that in the film.”
The Brit Awards event was in fact enacted by Silibil aka Billy Boyd who was more than just a silent partner as Finlay explains.
“It was a story that was conceived by both of them. It depends who you listen to. Gav does believe that it was all his idea but Billy was a really equal part of it. For this film it was important that I had both their stories because Gav had a book out he did a lot of press but actually Billy has got something very interesting to say. Billy is like a shining example of what you would do with a bit of charisma – he could get in anywhere. At South by South West they got in everywhere.”
Despite a willingness to lie no matter what, it was Finlay that Boyd and Bain had chosen to share their story with as someone honest and Gavin concedes that it was useful to have someone who would question their sincerity.
“To be kept on your toes is always cool and because I had spent so long writing nine drafts of a book and having a company go this part doesn’t work, well that’s the truth. You have to look at your story, you scrutinise what happened and you break it and shape it around. Getting a product out, you’re forced to change reality. The line’s so blurry so it’s tough to be 100% accurate so that does force you to think deeper.”
As well as the interviews with Bain, Boyd and those who witnessed their rise and fall, the film is enhanced by animation based on the designs Jon Burgerman, giving the reconstructions a different feeling to many documentaries as was Finlay’s intended goal.
“I’m good friends with Jon. He used to live around the corner from me in Nottingham and he now lives in Brooklyn. He’s kind of got this crazy sense of humour and this huge body of work. When I went up to Arbroath and met Billy, I was just like ‘you’re a Jon Burgerman drawing come to life.’ It was as instant as that to be honest, I saw him and thought we should animate some of the story. Part of that is pragmatic because it’s a story that happened in the past and I wanted to bring to life some of the humour and some of the stuff they were doing and heighten that. Also they made themselves into two-dimensional cartoon characters so why not use that portrayal in the film.”
As well as these animations highlighting the unreality, the life of Silibil ‘n’ Brains was chronicled to an unprecedented level at the time as Bain explains.
“I was serial diarist. Because I came from South Africa and I used to write diaries for my friends because I missed them and I would never write the truth so I would always write a better life. I never sent it to them but I was always writing and when I realised that I could do this with a camera I realised that if this does break and people watch this video then maybe they’ll be able to see the reality behind this: that there’s actually two good guys trying to do something great. Also at that time Jackass was massive so we were filming for that and also capturing some of this mental stuff that we were doing. We’re skateboarders and like having a laugh so why don’t we just capture everything, not thinking like we’ll make a documentary out of it but we’re thinking this is our saving grace, something to fall back on.”
These elements are used sparingly but act as a reminder to the audience of the reality of the situation.
“We got the archive quite late in the day and what was good is it showed rather than told elements of the story so things like they were playing big gigs, we open on a really big gig. You need to see it and experience it. You need to see them on stage, you need to see them rifling through D12’s dressing room or lying to Sony. Seeing them lying was really exciting; I was screaming my head off.”
The film implies a rather Scottish element of self-sabotage with Bain acting as a perfectionist and repeatedly missing release windows as Finlay explains.
“I thought it was fascinating the idea that Gavin sabotaged anything ever coming out, so they were stuck in limbo, it was never going to happen. So they were in this limbo of almost being a success than failing.”
This is not an interpretation that Bain agrees with, blaming circumstances more than his own actions.
“The first single never came out because we spoke to our lawyer that week and we knew that if we came out after the first single and anything was different, we knew we were going to get sued so we got the band in. So we changed the music from hip hop to punk rock hip hop. In doing that Lost Prophets were just getting big so we were able to convince them that guitar music was going to take over for this next period, and we said let’s re-record the record as guitar riffs and the label agreed. That was the first stall, and then the next record they wanted to go with was “Play With Myself” and just as they went to put it to MTV, that said it had too many dodgy lyrics in it. So that was two records that couldn’t come out that had nothing to do with me.”
Despite years of setbacks and a friendship almost destroyed, Bain still believes Silibil ‘n’ Brains will reach the heights their music deserves.
“With Silibil ‘n’ Brains now, there’s such a big buzz behind it, we’ve turned down labels. We’re better marketers than any of them anyway. We’ve got the tools behind us and we’ve got crazy minds that we’ll just have fun getting it out there. I’m pretty sure it will get out to a massive audience.”
The Great Hip Hop Hoax is in selected cinemas now